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Saturday, September 25, 2021

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CultureFood & DrinkDrenched to perfection: Where to score the best torta...

Drenched to perfection: Where to score the best torta ahogada

A Mexican American local's quest for the elusive Jalisco-style, soaked-in-salsa sandwich

You wouldn’t usually pull up to the 40s block of East Oakland as an outsider unless you have a purpose. In my case, it was to find the deliciously elusive Mexican sandwich, known as the torta ahogada.

If the torta ahogada was a Pokemon, it would be rated as hella rare on the food index—not something you might casually find at every California intersection like a burrito, taco, or even quesabirria nowadays. Nah, this is like finding the fiery Moltres, one of the three legendary birds of Kanto, in the flavorful wild.

Though popular back in Jalisco—the Mexican state where it originated—this juicy sandwich hasn’t completely crossed over into the States’ mainstream yet, and, in my experience, requires some knowledge to find in the Bay Area, where there are only a handful of reputable locations that can properly deliver the underappreciated culinary artform.

But what makes it worth diving deep into the neighborhood for? Well, for starters, it’s a good way to celebrate Mexican Independence Day on September 16. But more importantly, it’s unlike any sandwich you’ve ever had—because this one comes drenched in salsa. Literally.

A proper torta ahogada, which directly translates into “drowned torta,” consists of a baguette-like bread known as birote (which is reminiscent of a sweet sourdough roll with a nice crunch), a heap of carnitas (tender, braised pork), pickled onions (typically marinated in lemon juice for some extra zest), and, most definitively, a bright, red salsa (made from tomatoes and árbol chiles) drenching every inch of your plate.

The source of this wet sandwich is like most Mexican history—part truth, part myth, part accidental. I’d know, since my parents immigrated here directly from Veracruz, and I’ve heard all the conflicting versions about why anything in life is the way it is. There’s always a hint of a lie inside every Mexican truth, yet, whatever the case may be, it doesn’t actually matter, because it’ll be forgotten as soon as you take a bite into whatever torta ahogada you are debating.

The most common version of the story goes like this: A cook from the city of Guadalajara accidentally dropped a torta into a conveniently angled pot of salsa, and when he took it out, dripping and soggy, he decided to serve it instead of tossing it away. It’s highly plausible, since Mexicanos aren’t known to discard perfectly good food, even if it has been soaked, and especially not if it has been soaked in salsita. So, that is how the elders will tell you tortas ahogadas were birthed.

And now that you know all this, you can appreciate the path that has led me to this very intersection, when the sandwich-that-could reached Mi Barrio at 4749 International Blvd in Oakland, CA, roughly 2,000 miles away from its Tapatío origin south of the border.

Mi Barrio, on 4749 International Blvd, is one of the realest torta spots you’ll find. Photo: Alan Chazaro

If you know East Oakland, you know it’s a mostly working-class and immigrant community, with minimal signs of gentrification or outside influence, which makes me feel right at home. I know I can trust the spot, only a few stop lights away from where my wife spent her childhood, and where Mexican rancheras blast from apartments to make the buildings rumble. But I’d never actually been to this legendary restaurant until now.

In trying to find this region-specific Mexican sandwich, I’ve asked only the most legit sources in my life: Mexican food connoisseurs on Twitter, a couple of my East Bay homies, my older brother, and my cousin’s cousin who used to run a specialty torta ahogada spot in San Jose before the pandemic.

They’ve all told me that Mi Barrio is their go-to for bread and… salsa.

Promotional photo inside Mi Barrio. Since I couldn’t eat in the restaurant at the time and had to eat on the sidewalk outside, I couldn’t manage pouring the sauce and balancing the wet sandwich while taking pics. It can get messy. Photo: Alan Chazaro

Though typically open to eat in, it was still “closed” due to COVID restrictions when I visited a while back, so I took mine to go. Having previously lived in Mexico with my family, I can at least say I have some knowledge of what experiencing a real torta ahogada should be like, so eating it on the sidewalk actually felt fitting.

After taking the first bite from Mi Barrio, I can confidently say that the pueblo was correct: This spot hits.

Mi Barrio menu. Note the three varieties of tortas ahogadas in the top left. Photo: Alan Chazaro

The bread is tastefully soggy, but still holds together with a tangy chewiness that compliments the savory carnitas perfectly. If anything, the salsa was a tad too spicy—and I’m the usually type to eat spicy foods until my eyes water. But the beauty of Mi Barrio was that they serve you the sando and the salsa separately, so you control your own destiny of inflammation and spice levels (which isn’t always the case). In fact, Mi Barrio provides two sauces—one is darker, thicker, and spicier, and the other is noticeably lighter and sweeter (I advise pouring more of this one).

To help quell your burning lips, I recommend an orange Jarritos, since the cold and sugary soda is a sure way to balance out the heat with each mordida.

For sure, this spot is certified, and if you are really trying to get that authentic flavor on full blast, I can’t recommend a better place to go. But I wanted more. I especially wanted to see what San Francisco had to offer, since most view it as the gem of Latinx street food culture for the entire United States’ West Coast, outside of maybe Los Angeles. 

During my search and conversations, one place kept coming up, so I knew I had to go see what was there: Tortas Los Picudos, or Spicy Tortas, at 2969 24th Street, SF. It’s a hard-to-miss spot, tucked on a tiny block between Treat and Harrison in the Mission; I nearly passed it up while walking and staring at the nearby Precita Eyes building, but has been in the community for over 21 years, holding down the true locals.

Cashier taking orders at Los Picudos, and all the salsa options below. Photo: Alan Chazaro

When you finally go inside, the torta ahogada is a bit of a secret, though—when I asked the bookshop cashier across the street at Alleycat (a friend of mine who migrated to the Bay from Mexico City), he said he didn’t know he could get tortas ahogadas there but was excited to check them out. The sandwich is also listed on their menu as “torta abogada.” Don’t let that throw you off from ordering one.

In terms of the dish itself, it was generously served, and had a small twist: refried beans. Typically not a part of the sandwich, the addition of frijoles did help to soak up some of the salsa (which is mildly spicy, but manageable). The sandwich was worth the additional trip, since it not only filled me up at an affordably delicious price ($6.95), but it was so much that I couldn’t take the final bite. The proportions are so hefty that I literally needed a fork and knife to handle it all—typically sacrilegious for me when handling a torta.

Torta mural inside Los Picudos. Photo: Alan Chazaro

The staff at Tortas Los Picudos was noticeably generous and very friendly, and the neighborhood rapport with regular customers was apparent. When I ordered a fresh orange and carrot juice from their press, the worker tossed in a free agua de fresa (strawberry water). All in all, they are a worthy representation of the ahogada sandwich, and would make any Mexican or San Francisican proud.

Though somewhat hard to find because of its regional specificity and specialty ingredients, the torta ahogada is worth the hunt. For us Bay Area pochos, staying connected to our culinary roots has never been tastier—and that’s saying a lot. So let’s give the taco and burrito a break for once, and dip into this dippable Mexican specialty.

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